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Green Nuclear Power… So why not use Thorium?

With two nuclear crises threatening world peace at the moment, it is time to look seriously at the history of nuclear power.

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Graham Douglas

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For some time now the opposition to nuclear power has diminished as it has gradually been accepted that it is the only large scale Carbon –free source of energy.

The situation was highlighted in a recent Carbon Tracker report which talks of a “carbon bubble” resulting from the overvaluation of energy companies who may never be allowed to exploit up to 70% of existing energy reserves if global warming agreements are to be met.

China alone is projected to increase its nuclear generation by up to 25% of current world nuclear capacity by 2021.

The Fukushima disaster after an earthquake has made the crisis of atomic power even more acute, and a number of countries have since renounced it altogether.

It may come as a surprise to hear that there is a safe form of nuclear power generation which has been known since the possibilities of nuclear energy were first exploited during World War 2.

In 1944 Roosevelt and Churchill signed an agreement that they would do all they could to secure the available supplies of Uranium and Thorium ores.  But despite the fact that the element Thorium (chemical symbol Th) was known from the beginning to be a suitable fuel for power generation it was abandoned in favour of Uranium (symbol U).

In Richard Martin’s book Super Fuel (2012) he says that although Thorium power was not simply abandoned because it could not produce weapons-grade Plutonium, still it is clear that in the rush to develop nuclear energy in the US, Uranium was considered to be a better understood technology. And the military characters in charge of the projects were so determined to develop it as quickly as possible that their minds were closed to the alternatives.

And closed also to the obvious risks of Uranium reactors, which one of the pioneers of nuclear power, Alvin Weinberg, was already warning the US government about back in 1960.

The advantages that are claimed for Thorium as a fuel:

Thorium ores are cheaper and more widely distributed than Uranium ores.

A Th reactor produces less than 1% of radioactive waste compared to conventional U reactors, and the waste it does produce is safe after as little as 10 to 500 years compared to thousands of years for Uranium reactor waste.

Uranium reactors only deliver about 5% of the available energy of the fuel in useful form, compared to over 50% in Th reactors.

These factors apply to all Th reactors, but the so-called  Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) design has three other important advantages:

It cannot suffer a melt-down – if its temperature does increase, a plug at the bottom melts and the core material collects harmlessly in a storage vessel.

A liquid fuel reactor is not pressurized, meaning that there is no risk of explosion due to over-heating.

The current standard design is the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) which operates at around 100 times atmospheric pressure and requires complicated plumbing designed to operate at high pressure..

It can also burn Plutonium as a fuel thus eliminating the problem of safe storage of this dangerous waste product of Uranium reactors.

In case this sounds like a utopian dream it is worth pointing out that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was set up in 1943 to develop nuclear technology for the US Govt., last year published a paper Th-ING: A sustainable Energy Source, describing the processes involved and pointing out that the US has over 3,000 tons of Thorium Nitrate at a secure site, due to the high cost of disposal – estimated at $ 60 million. The article explains the ING of its title: that Thorium Is Now Green.

Due to new chemical techniques developed at Los Alamos, it has become possible to process Thorium ores much more cheaply and efficiently than before, using procedures that are far safer environmentally.

The LFTR procedure was developed in the 1950s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, under Alvin Weinberg.

So, are there no problems with Th- technology ?

In his book, Martin deals with the most frequent criticisms. Th- reactors do produce small quantities of dangerous waste products, including U-232, but due to its short half- life of only 70 years it safe to handle after hundreds, not thousands, of years.

Both Th- and U- reactors also produce the isotope U-233 and Plutonium, which can be used in weapons, but in a Th- reactor they are contaminated by U-232 making them too difficult to handle by any potential terrorist.

Another argument is that Th-reactors, like those using Uranium require fuel to be recycled and during this process it can be diverted to bomb-making. A key advantage of LFTR reactors is that they eliminate this risk by reprocessing the fuel internally.

So why not use Thorium?

The answer to this varies with the countries concerned.

According to Martin, the US has become hamstrung by its huge investment in Uranium technology, and the licensing procedures for new nuclear technology, which can take decades.

In Iran, which has signed the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it seems likely that the desire to produce weapons is the reason for their developoment of Uranium power. As speakers at the forthcoming Thorium Alliance conference will describe, Thorium reactors are actually superior in their ability to produce medically useful isotopes, which the Iranian government claims is the reason for their investment in nuclear power.

India, which has not signed the NPT, has been investing in nuclear power for over 50 years and has a plan for a 3-stage system, which although consuming Thorium, of which they have abundant stocks, will also use Uranium in order to produce Plutonium for its weapons programme. India also benefits from a unique waiver granted by the Bush administration in 2006, allowing it to receive nuclear technology and equipment from the US.

China is the biggest country which is developing large sacale power plants running on Thorium without military aims.

The issue of domestic nuclear power is still entangled with weapons production in too many countries. During the recent crisis over North Korea, Fidel Castro was even moved to call it the most dangerous since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Thorium can provide the answer to the safe use of nuclear technoilogy in carbon-free energy production – but the geo-political problem remains.

As long as western countries want to dominate other continents the incentive will remain for countries like Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons via nuclear power plants, as the only threat big enough to make the west back off.

Martin’s conclusion is that the US is also likely to lose out economically due to its institutional and legislative torpor, and despite having invented the LFTR might one day be buying them from China.

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